Eradicating Malaria: The End Game Relies on Scientific Alliances
Despite decades of research, there is no reliable vaccine for malaria. Dr. Philip Eckhoff lays out the strategies and collaborations required to eradicate this disease and the half a million lives it takes each year.
Philip Eckhoff is the principal investigator of the disease modeling team at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Washington. This group develops computer simulations of malaria, polio, and other disease transmission dynamics to assist public health professionals and other scientists in planning eradication of different diseases. These simulations have resolution of individuals but cover large geographic areas and are focused on studying all phases of a global eradication campaign. Beyond modeling disease eradication, his research interests include technologies for improved public health in the developing world and other global development issues, such as vaccine delivery and sanitation.
Philip completed his undergraduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) receiving degrees in pure mathematics and aerospace engineering. At UT, he participated on the winning design team for FASTRAC, a student designed and built satellite for the Nanosat-3 competition. Philip began his graduate studies at Princeton University in applied and computational mathematics, receiving his PhD in 2009. At Princeton, his work focused on computational neuroscience and biophysics-motivated models of decision making. While at Princeton, he began work on malaria and mathematical models of disease transmission, having had malaria frequently while growing up in Haiti.
Philip received a Special Achievement Award by a Hertz Fellow in 2009 for his work on Malaria Modeling. He enjoys hiking and kayaking in the Pacific Northwest and attending Seattle Symphony performances.
Philip Eckhoff: Disease eradication is a very difficult challenge. It’s been tried for a number of different diseases but it’s only worked so far for smallpox which was the first human disease eradicated at the end of the 1970s and for rinderpest which is a cattle disease or was a cattle disease before it was eradicated everywhere in the world. Global eradication has been tried before for malaria in the 1950s and 1960s and it didn’t succeed for a number of reasons.
Right now almost half a million people die every year of malaria. And which is an extraordinarily high number and a terrible burden although this number used to be well over a million. So there has been progress in terms of reducing this burden. What one needs to do is different if you’re starting at a very high burden where everyone is getting infected several times a year. And what one has to do when one’s down to the last couple of cases in a given country.
The tactics change. The strategy changes. The tools change. When starting out in terms of reducing the burden the most important thing is reducing transmission and providing access to treatment. So making sure that people have drugs that work is very important. The second thing will be to give out things like bed nets to reduce the rate at which people actually get new infections. Then all of a sudden you can start to look at a country and see that there’s very little malaria in certain parts of it. And most of the malaria is concentrated in a few remaining pockets.
Then building the right surveillance and information systems and logistics to be able to target enhanced efforts at those sections of the country becomes the next important thing. It gets to the point where not everyone even in the highest remaining transmission areas is infected. We have to figure out who is still driving transmission, who is not receiving access to the right tools and making sure that you extend access to everyone who’s driving transmission and everyone who is still vulnerable to the disease.
And then in the end it becomes very interesting. There will be only a small scattering of cases here and there and finding them and responding to them quickly with good case management ends up becoming one of the most important tools in the end game. So understanding where a given country is along this continuum, scaling up the tools and most importantly the information systems and ability to deliver treatment all along that continuum. Fundamental aspects of health systems end up becoming really important from start to finish.
On a problem like malaria eradication, disease eradication in general, getting rid of infectious diseases, it is very fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem. There will be people from the medical side of things. There will be people from health systems and operations. People who know immunology, drug development, vaccine development, mosquito science, entomologists. At the same time there’s also a really good role for people who are good at mathematics, people who are good at software, people who are good at data systems. And the interesting thing is when you have a question that’s really core to your part of the problem and you bounce it off someone from one of these other disciplines often they will come up with a better way of actually framing and looking at your specific question.
Sometimes they might even find a better question that actually gets rid of the main challenge you were trying to deal with. There’s a famous saying that if a problem seems intractable increase the scope of the problem. And that actually becomes really evident in the power of collaboration. If you’re looking at how can we in this one domain of say drug development get rid of malaria. That might be an intractable question but then you bring in the people who are good at vector biology, the people who are good at vaccines, the people who are good at data information systems and computing and the people who are really good at health systems and logistics. And all of a sudden you have a bigger problem but one where you can actually work together and solve this.
It requires a lot of learning in terms of how to speak each other’s language and how to listen to each other. And how to actually take the time to build these bridges to other fields and to really see the advantage and the impact of doing this well. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to just sit in a room and talk to other people from your discipline where you all already speak the same academic or research or operational language. But it is very much worth building these bridges and cross linking.
Philip Eckhoff is a
and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. Eckhoff is Principal Investigator of the disease modeling team at Intellectual Ventures. In this video, he explains what is involved in total global eradication of malaria and how interdisciplinary collaboration is the key to out-thinking and out-maneuvering this disease. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, he pursued a PhD in applied and computational mathematics at Princeton University, receiving his degree in doctorate in 2009.
The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.
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